Earlier this year I suddenly realized that I was the longest serving member in the New Internationalist co-operative. Colleagues have been encouraging me to blog about my experiences here for a long time now, so here’s my first effort.
I joined New Internationalist in 1983 but my working life had begun 16 years earlier when, having failed to get into university, I decided to utilize my adding-up skills and become a chartered accountant. It was hard; within a few years Monty Python had turned the profession into a laughing stock.
It was clear I had to get out and find an alternative career. My new qualification gave me breathing space and a route into university, where I discovered that academics had decreed that the sole purpose of companies was to earn as big a profit as possible. This wasn’t the mantra that I wanted to dedicate my life to so commerce was also ruled out as a career.
Instead, I joined a large NGO. This was a good move; I had a varied and interesting career for a number of years. Eventually though, the friendly atmosphere started to fray: the Director was rebadged as Director General and was soon dictating that the main purpose of an NGO was to raise as much money as possible. It seemed like a good time for me to move on and I was flattered to be ‘headhunted’ by the New Internationalist. I told myself I would give it five years but here I am, 28 years later, with no chance of a reprieve.
New Internationalist started life in 1973, but not as a co-op. Originally, it was a grant-funded organization controlled by those holding the purse strings – and those who had created the purse. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long before the workers agitated that New Internationalist should practice what it preached, and the organization became a co-operative.
In the first decade, before I joined, the trick was to demonstrate to the funders that the New Internationalist had a business future worth investing in. Those were also the years that many of the critical business decisions were taken, such as to sell the magazine on subscription, to rely on direct debit as the payment method, and to get involved with the international One World Calendar group.
In 1986, we became an equal-pay co-operative. It was a difficult decision, as the higher-paid had their pay frozen so that others could catch up. But we have stuck to the principle of equal pay and have not regretted it.
At New Internationalist we have a collective approach to decision-making. I am sure that collective thoughts, or, more accurately, individual thoughts processed collectively, have led us to make better decisions than if we had been a hierarchy. And even though we still rely on the expertise of individuals in their various areas of work, we don’t always go along with them. In the end, it’s the collective opinion that wins.
Of course, a few people find that co-operative working is not for them, and leave quite quickly. But for the majority of us, co-operative working is such a rewarding experience that finding a satisfactory career after leaving New Internationalist is not easy. It’s hard to get used again to a hierarchical system, in which one’s voice is too often not listened to.
We have found a couple of ways of helping people who are feeling a bit jaded in their job. On several occasions we have been able to offer someone an alternative role so they get a chance to use other professional skills they have. I, for example, have spent half my time at New Internationalist as an accountant, and half in sales and marketing; another person started by looking after our warehousing and has since joined the editorial team. And when people finally leave, they often stay connected to us in various ways – they write No-Nonsense Guides, undertake freelance work, join our Trustee body, or simply visit our Oxford office when they’re in town.
As I write this, I’m thinking that the International Day of Co-operatives is spot-on: it comes at a time when a growing number of people around the world are appalled by the ethics and behaviour of the corporate world and are looking at co-operatives as an alternative way of working.
Slogans that New Internationalist has championed over the years – such as ‘You cannot eat money’, ‘Bite back’ and ‘People before profit’ – are resonating with a mass audience as never before. All we need is to take power into our own hands.
Find out more at Co-operatives UK.